SIBELIUS and SHAKESPEARE
The Tempest, Op. 109 (Incidental Music and Suites)
Text by William Shakespeare, with excerpts from The Sea and the Mirror by W.H. Auden
Text adapted by Barry Edelstein
Although Sibelius was frustrated by his early experiences attempting to compose opera, he was able to sublimate this desire with stunning success in other genres. His dramatically compelling tone poems and incidental music for stage plays stand alongside the masterful symphonies as Sibelius’ most impressive achievements.
The once-popular genre of stage music is often compared to film scoring, but the analogy is misleading. Sibelius had more creative freedom to pursue musical tangents fired up by the accompanying dramaturgy than would be typical for a film composer, given all the compromises involved in production. His first major hit was a number (Valse triste) written for a deathbed scene in a play by his brotherin-law – one of almost a dozen theater works that Sibelius set to music throughout his career.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these is his incidental music to The Tempest. Sibelius originally wrote over an hour of music (for large orchestra, together with chorus and solo voices) to accompany a 1926 production at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen. It’s an extraordinarily rich, stylistically varied score that Alex Ross has rightly called “a shadow opera… perhaps the greatest Shakespeare opera never written.” — Thomas May
By Barry Edelstein
The Tempest is unique in the Shakespeare canon: the only one of his plays that’s both alpha and omega, first and last. Last: it was the final play that Shakespeare wrote by himself as his mighty career wound to a close (he collaborated with others on some plays after this one). First: his dear friends the actors John Heminges and Henry Con- dell, who published the original Complete Works of Shakespeare seven years after the playwright’s death, placed The Tempest first in that volume, the famous First Folio, in 1623. Did they think it was their friend’s best work? His most popular? His favorite? Theirs? We cannot know. But this dual perspective — the first play and the last — describes an indeterminate quality to the play that has shaped its reception for centuries.
We can’t trace the play’s source: it’s entirely original, the only Shakespeare play without a clear antecedent in another play or work of fiction or history. We can’t place its genre. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Or both? Or something in between? It’s political, psychological, supernatural, allegorical. It’s so many possible things, endlessly open to interpretation. This is its most “Shakespearean” aspect. Everything that Shakespeare is, is in this play. Perhaps that’s why Heminges and Condell put it first. If The Tempest were the only play you read of the 36 in the Folio, you’d have a powerful impression of the singular literary, theatrical, and philosophical voice that is Shakespeare’s.
Two ideas central to this first-last play express central obsessions of Shakespeare’s entire canon, two themes that run from the beginning of his career to its end. The first is the tension between revenge and forgiveness. The Tempest is the anti- Hamlet. It argues that revenge is morally bankrupt, that compassion is the higher value. Prospero discovers this in an epiphany that strikes him, and us, with seismic force: “The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance.” (If there’s a Shakespearean idea that we need to hear more at this moment, I don’t know what it is.)
The second towering idea in the play is wonder. Wonder is for Shakespeare an extreme emotional state on the cusp of joy and agony. The enormities that evoke wonder can be terrible — a hurricane, a massive tidal wave, a hideous monster, a giant Harpy. Wonders can also be beautiful and sublime — a smiling baby, a glorious flower in bloom, love in its purity, forgiveness in its perfect grace. Wonder and related ideas like amazement, astonishment, and marvel ping through The Tempest. Its characters are thunderstruck again and again, forced to believe what cannot be believed, to accept that miracles are real.
No one has captured the centrality of wonder to The Tempest better than W.H. Auden. In his 1947 magnum opus, The Sea and the Mirror, he anatomizes Shakespeare’s fixation on wonder’s double helix of delight and fear. Auden celebrates Shakespeare’s text even as he explores its pervasive irony and unease. He limns the boundaries of the human imagination, the glorious possibilities of art and its ignominious failings. Auden gives us a Prospero facing a “silent passage into discomfort,” and “trembling” at the prospect, a bracing and contemporary Prospero who, at the play’s end, grasps a fundamental truth: despite our triumphs, indeed, because of them, “our wonder, our terror remains.” Throughout my life in Shakespeare, I’ve been unable to read The Tempest without Auden by my side.
Shakespeare and Auden, plus one more giant: Sibelius. His great incidental score for The Tempest is magisterial and ravish- ing, bright and beguiling. Sibelius sees Prospero as an unambiguously virtuous figure who heroically sets right an old injustice and engineers a happy ending for all. It’s a simpler approach than Auden’s, sentimental and almost naïve. Less than a generation after Sibelius, ideas about this play would grow considerably darker.
Still, Sibelius frequently captures the anxieties lurking on Prospero’s island. In many passages, he, Shakespeare, and even Auden line up in a perfect aesthetic constellation. But some of the music is harder to reconcile with the sensibilities of a culture a century away. So Susanna Mälkki and I have moved pieces around, lifting excerpts and applying them to places we wish Sibelius had musicalized, or redeploy- ing and reinterpreting them to suit the emotional temperature of the production we wish to make for Los Angeles in 2018.
From our work has emerged a sort of hybrid: part concert, part theater, part opera, part dance, part video. Three geniuses are behind it — Shakespeare, Sibelius, Auden — and together they make a kind of North Star by which we’ve navigated a voyage full of wonders, from first to last.